The U.S. Coast Guard is sometimes perceived as a stepchild of the military establishment, but it plays a vital role during peacetime as well as during times of war. The Coast Guard has developed a reputation of being able to do more with less, and has been praised as one of the most cost-efficient parts of the federal government. Working for any such organization has its benefits and drawbacks, and the Coast Guard is no exception.
A Range of Responsibilities
The Coast Guard’s forerunner organization was the Revenue Marine, later named the Revenue Cutter Service. It was established as an arm of the Treasury Department by Alexander Hamilton in 1790, and consisted of 10 armed cutters to prevent smuggling. The Coast Guard’s mission has grown significantly over the years, and today consists of 11 components established by law, including aids to navigation, drug interdiction, marine safety, environmental protection and search and rescue. In performing these missions, it acts both as a law enforcement agency and a regulatory agency. Coast Guard units have actively participated in U.S. wars, generally deploying with the Navy. The service was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Transportation Department in the 1960s, and more recently to the Department of Homeland Security.
Benefits of Coast Guard Service
Like all military branches, the Coast Guard offers its officers and enlisted personnel steady pay, good benefits and job security. In addition to basic pay, personnel receive free government-provided housing or a tax-free housing allowance based on rental rates where they’re stationed, as well as a food allowance. Pay is based on rank and time in the service, and performance figures significantly in promotions. A comprehensive health care program is provided. There are many other fringe benefits of being a Coastie, such as exchange and commissary privileges, access to GI Bill benefits and Veterans’ Administration home loans. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of being in the Coast Guard is the ability to select your own career path, limited only by your aptitude, physical abilities and security clearance. Another intangible benefit is the camaraderie that develops in any organization with a common mission and an important responsibility -- in this case, helping to protect and secure the nation's waters.
Aging Fleet, Budget Cuts
There are drawbacks to serving in the Coast Guard, some of them so deeply rooted in the organization’s culture that they’re not always seen as drawbacks. Within military circles, for example, the Coast Guard is famous for “doing more with less.” In reality, this translates to having to work with an aging fleet and under the constant threat of budget freezes and cuts. When the U.S. stepped in to provide assistance after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, for example, 19 Coast Guard cutters were sent to Haiti to take part in the effort. Of those 19 ships, 12 required emergency repairs and two more were recalled for emergency drydock repairs. Budgetary constraints force the Coast Guard to make tradeoffs that other military branches don't have to worry about. For example, some major Coast Guard assets have been removed from service so more money can be spent on modernizing its fleet. These and other issues are bound to have an impact on the work life of Coasties.
Structural and Other Drawbacks
Despite its aging fleet and budget problems, the Coast Guard operates in a system of duplicated effort, sharing many functions with the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection. In addition, it employs a vintage command hierarchy that isolates top leadership from operational issues. Another problem Coasties have to deal with on an almost daily basis is being overlooked as an integral component of America’s military. This is partly due to non-military responsibilities such as maintaining buoys, measuring fish and shellfish to enforce size limits, and rescuing inebriated pleasure boaters.
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